What it's like to be DACAmented

Diana Rodriguez's mother brought her to America when she was just 3 years old. It hasn't been easy.

The pickup truck bounced along the road, moving swiftly toward its final destination: the U.S.-Mexico border. Tucked away inside, 3-year-old Diana Rodriguez, her 6-year-old brother, and their mother were silent, with only the occasional hiss of "Be quiet!" in Spanish breaking through the stillness when young Rodriguez dared stir.

"My mother got the sense that we didn't know what was going on, but that something was going on," Rodriguez said. She was so young, after all, when they slipped undetected into the United States, then continued on from Arizona to Chicago, where their father, who had left Jalisco, Mexico, a year earlier to find work in the metropolis, was waiting.

There wasn't much for the Rodriguez family in the mountainous region of Jalisco — work was scarce, and it just wasn't sustainable for a family of four. When word came tumbling down from up north that there were plenty of job opportunities — in construction, at restaurants, as a janitor — in Chicago, Rodriguez's father decided to make the trek. He was welcomed by family already living there, and soon Rodriguez and her mother and brother joined him.

"I never thought about where I was born versus where I grew up," Rodriguez, now a junior at Pomona College studying economics, philosophy, and politics, told The Week. "I knew I was Mexican, but I didn't think much about it. My parents started making comments about my status, though, saying things like, 'You're so smart, if only you had papers,' and 'You can't really do anything because you don't have papers.' I didn't understand what they meant."

Still, Rodriguez grew up thinking it was "normal" to be afraid of the police, because "of course you don't want to get in trouble." She was sheltered by her parents, she said, but since they never passed along any fears about deportation and immigration officers, the idea of being forced to leave the United States never crossed her mind.

Her parents never came out and told her she was undocumented, assuming she would put two and two together when they said she was born in Mexico. She figured it out by the time she was in sixth grade, when her parents made it clear that her lack of papers would create obstacles — she wasn't allowed to go on a class trip to D.C., for example, because they worried about the documents needed to get her on a flight. Rodriguez wasn't deterred, focusing on her academics, getting straight As, and gearing up for the road ahead at her college prep charter high school. But when President Barack Obama signed his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative in 2012, she didn't realize how much it would benefit her until a counselor urged her to apply. And it turned out that DACA — which lets undocumented immigrants who meet a variety of requirements, including having entered the U.S. before they turned 16, obtain work permits, enroll in college, and legally remain in the United States for at least two years — was enormous for Rodriguez, then a high school junior.

It was "scary giving all of this information to immigration," Rodriguez recalled. So her high school brought in lawyers to help her and other students applying for DACA fill out their applications, which was a relief for frazzled families who couldn't remember exact dates and addresses. Still, Rodriguez's family worried about willingly handing the government information it might use to deport them. Among many other things, all of Rodriguez's fingers were scanned, and just like that, she was in the system. "My dad said, 'Don't ever get in trouble, they'll run your prints.'"

While Rodriguez waited for final word on her application, every knock on the door triggered concern — was it immigration? The police? "It was suspenseful," Rodriguez said. But "once I got the card, we knew we were safe."

That feeling didn't last.

At the end of her junior year in high school, Rodriguez joined the ranks of the DACAmented (now at around 800,000 people). They are elementary school teachers, baristas at Starbucks, electricians, and graphic designers — most from Mexico, but also from Central and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Because you had to have come to the U.S. before age 16 to be eligible for DACA, they are integrated into American society, growing up knowing the country's pop culture, cuisine, fashion styles, and media.

Being born in Mexico but raised in the United States, Rodriguez often feels caught in the middle — there are people who tell her, "But you don't look Mexican!" and others that say, "Oh, your English is so good!" Her ties to Mexico are there, but loose — it was just a few years ago that Rodriguez met her grandmother for the first time, when the elder Rodriguez was able to get a visa and fly to the United States, and Rodriguez herself hasn't returned to Jalisco or anywhere else south of the border since she left at age 3.

After high school, Rodriguez moved west to California, choosing Pomona College because it is a DACA-friendly school, focused on enrolling the best students regardless of their citizenship status (its former president, David Oxtoby, wrote an open letter, signed by dozens of other college presidents across the country, urging President Trump not to go through with his threats to rescind DACA). Rodriguez is now the head mentor for a DACA-support group, and last semester worked three jobs and took five classes (this year, she's still fully enrolled with four classes, but will work four jobs).

Her citizenship status and heritage came to the forefront during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Trump talked about Mexico "not sending their best" immigrants, promised to build a huge wall along the border, and called Mexicans "rapists." When he was elected, "all of my friends and family were in tears," Rodriguez said. "It was very much the beginning of uncertainty. We weren't sure what he would do with DACA, and that didn't protect our parents — they said they won't target students, but they had our addresses. It was a big burden — if anything happened, it was because of me, because I gave immigration all of this information."

In the days after the election, Rodriguez said she envisioned states following in Arizona's footsteps, passing bills like SB 1070, a 2010 law that let law enforcement check the immigration status of a person if they had "reasonable suspicion" they were not legally in the state.

"I didn't know how conservative Illinois was, and if police would start asking for citizenship status and start targeting undocumented people," she said. "There were so many questions — how am I going to go home for winter break? Summer break? Is that even possible? Would my parents be able to come to graduation? It was very emotional."

But there was little to do but sit tight. So, just as she waited to find out about the status of her DACA application, Rodriguez waited to see what Trump would do about the program. There were mixed messages, with Trump saying in February that he would "deal with DACA with heart," but ultimately trotting out Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Sept. 5 to say the act was being rescinded. He called DACA "an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch," and claimed "hundreds of thousands of Americans" had been "denied jobs" because those "same jobs" went to "illegal aliens." Mere days later, President Trump appeared on the verge of formalizing a deal with Democratic leaders to protect DACA recipients.

Rodriguez is hopeful that there will still be a "push for a more permanent solution for immigration." But what she wishes most of all is that people understood DACA, and the clear requirements — to get approved, the recipient must have no criminal record, show proof of arrival, is in school or has a high school diploma/GED certificate, or is an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, among other things. It doesn't give recipients carte blanche to take any job they want, or start collecting public benefits.

"People saying 'immigrants are taking all our jobs,' you have a Social Security card, a résumé. You come in as an immigrant, you take any job you can, regardless of the pay rate," she said. "Want to apply for field work or as a janitor? Please, go for it."

Rodriguez struggles to imagine what her life would be like if she's deported to Mexico. All Rodriguez knows about Mexico is what she hears on the news and reads on the internet, and "that's it. I have no idea how the government works, the jobs there are. It's very much a foreign country, which is sad for me. I love the culture, the music, the language, and that's my parents' home. I was born there, but when I consider home, it's always going to be Chicago."

Rodriguez would be considered a foreigner in the country of her birth, "with people being suspicious of this new person who speaks English and has no accent." The tension between the United States and Mexico also would potentially make a return risky, as it would be obvious she was American — she doesn't know any Mexican slang, or what people wear, and the social norms.

"I have a fear of being deported, a fear of not being able to come back, a fear of not being accepted in the country where I was born," she said. "I don't even know if the government would help me and take me in. I know in the U.S. I can't apply for government aid, but can I do that in Mexico if I haven't lived there for the past 20 years of my life? There are so many grey areas."

Mexico is dealing with its own immigration issues, with undocumented people from El Salvador, Honduras, and other Central American countries making their way north. Both in America and Mexico, Rodriguez hopes to see the narrative switch, with the stigma that comes from being an undocumented immigrant removed.

"Immigration laws are always targeting immigrants in a way where people think they must be doing a bad thing," she said. "There's a strong rhetoric and the media essentially paints a picture so if one immigrant does something bad, all immigrants are bad. You can't blame all immigrants."

The truth is, immigrants are more likely to be law-abiding because they don't want their status to be found out, Rodriguez said, and "it shouldn't be about 'us versus them.' All of our stories are different. There is no story that is a collective of all immigrant stories, especially for those of us brought over as kids."

Rodriguez is grateful to her parents for setting out to make a better life for their children. It was a matter of survival, and Rodriguez benefited by growing up in Chicago, where she learned English and attended supportive schools. The United States is bursting with opportunity, she said, and if her parents had remained in Mexico, the options would be bleak.

"I'm pretty sure I'd be doing domestic work now, cleaning houses and trying to make due day by day," Rodriguez said. "If I had stayed, I wouldn't have been able to go to college because I wouldn't have been able to afford it. Here in the United States, you work hard and can do whatever you want — that's always easier said than done, and some don't have to work as hard as others — but there's still that hope."

Rodriguez wants to attend law school after she receives her undergraduate degree, either focusing on corporate or immigration law.

"In Mexico, I don't know if I'd be married with kids already, but that would very much be my future," she said. "I don't think I'd ever be able to consider being a lawyer, because those resources just wouldn't be there. I know one thing for sure: I'd be struggling."

But for the DACAmented, life in America is not without its struggles, either.


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